The preseason is hardly indicative of how a team will perform over the course of the regular season, but it can provide insight into what we can expect from various players and positions. The following is a list of 10 hunches brought on by the preseason.
1. Offensive line will be better
I’m not expecting the offensive line to be among the best in the league, but we know it can’t be any worse than it was last season. The Bears made few changes to the group from last season, but they made enough position switches to see to it that the best players available to them are where they should be along the line.
2. Run game should be improved from last year
Rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi should have his fair share of rookie mistakes but he could be just the right piece to anchor the run game. The line as a whole helped Matt Forte have a great second half of the season and they should continue that success in the ground game this year. The Bears brought in Marion Barber for short-yardage situations and as a change-of-pace back from Forte, and Barber has already been a pleasant surprise. Staying healthy will be his biggest challenge.
3. Jay Cutler should absorb less sacks
Continuing with the offensive line theme, Cutler can’t possibly take more sacks than he did last year. Between learning from past mistakes and the subtle improvement of the offensive line, as well as Cutler’s improved health, stamina and physique, the Bears’ franchise quarterback should remain upright more often than not this year.
4. Mike Martz will be better equipped to try to run his offense
Martz tried to run the Greatest Show on Turf last year and the offense just wasn’t able to execute it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the lack of talent across the board. He had to switch to a more conservative method of play calling and the Bears thrived because of it. Martz will once again try to open up the passing game and now he has a variety of players that can help him execute it. From Roy Williams’ experience in the offense to Earl Bennett’s reliability, Devin Hester’s speed and Johnny Knox’s improvement from last year, the Bears will have a little more success in the passing game.
5. Dane Sanzenbacher will have a defined role
Very rarely do you see a sixth receiver make much of an impact on game days, but Dane Sanzenbacher could have a role in this offense. He weighs 100 pounds soaking wet and can barely pass the height requirements to ride the carousel at the amusement park, but the guy is a bona fide player. Sanzenbacher doesn’t have blazing speed, but he’s just small and quick enough to evade defenders and is intelligent enough to find the right spot to sit in zone coverage. In multiple-receiver sets, Sanzenbacher can be Cutler’s outlet if a bigger play is not available to him, or if he’s just looking to avoid pressure and dump off the ball.
6. The defensive line will bring the pressure more consistently
They had their moments in the preseason and we need to see more of it against teams with good passing attacks, but the defensive line looks deep and flexible. Henry Melton could develop into Tommie Harris’ replacement as he’s being given every opportunity to do so. Melton can line up at end, too, to give defenses a different look. The Bears can swap Melton and Julius Peppers on occasional third-and-long plays to help bring the pressure from a different direction. I’m excited to see what Amobi Okoye can do as part of the defensive tackle rotation.
7. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs must not get hurt
Aside from being two of the best players on the team, losing Urlacher or Briggs would be devastating because there just doesn’t seem to be enough depth behind them at the linebacker position. Even Nick Roach at strong-side linebacker becomes a much relied upon player to stay healthy and make plays. The Bears could always comb the waiver wire for another veteran, but they might stand pat at the position unless they’re forced to make a move down the line.
8. Tim Jennings will be serviceable opposite Charles Tillman
If you saw Tim Jennings on the street, you wouldn’t think he was an NFL player. He’s got a small frame and doesn’t appear to be demonstrative, but Jennings plays bigger than he actually is. He’s not a playmaker by any means but Jennings will provide enough comfort as the starting cornerback opposite Charles Tillman. I like his toughness in the run game, although he’s made his fair share of mistakes in the passing game. Whatever the case, I feel better about him at cornerback than I do about the safety position.
9. Safety could be the biggest problem this season
Although it was just a stinger and he was out for only a couple plays, Major Wright was injured once again in the preseason. His injury past is becoming a cause for concern and I don’t see how he’ll be able to sustain a long, productive career. Even as a healthy player, pass coverage is his weakness and I worry about him as the last line of defense. Backups Craig Steltz and Chris Conte were both hurt in the preseason finale against the Browns and, likewise, aren’t great players even when healthy.
10. Bears will still find a way to have one of the top special teams
The Bears made their fair share of mistakes in the special teams this preseason. Robbie Gould missed a handful of field goals, Adam Podlesh had a couple wobblers off his foot, the coverage teams gave up some big returns and the blocking teams often failed to create return lanes. But there is turnover on special teams each year and yet somehow coordinator Dave Toub finds a way to reload. Of the Bears’ problems in the preseason, special teams concern me the least.